COVID-19 variant cases surge in Ontario as 99 suspected in Barrie area

Most of the cases are tied to a devastating outbreak at a long-term care home, but two cases have no links, raising concerns about how much the virus could be spreading in the community.

63 more people with COVID-19 died, Ministry of Health says

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit says it's now tracking 99 suspected COVID-19 cases caused by a variant of the novel coronavirus first discovered in the U.K. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Health officials north of Toronto say they now believe 99 people who have COVID-19 there have a variant of the virus first detected in the U.K.

Almost all of those cases are tied to a devastating outbreak at the Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., but two cases have no link to the home, raising concerns the more contagious variant could be spreading in the community.

If confirmed by whole genome sequencing — a process that is underway, according to the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit — the new variant cases would mark a serious uptick in the number of such cases in Ontario. As of Monday, the province had only confirmed 34 cases of the mutated virus.

Earlier Tuesday, there was better news as Ontario reported 1,740 cases of COVID-19 — the fewest on a single day since mid-December.

The new cases include 677 in Toronto, 320 in Peel Region and 144 in York Region. 

They come as the province's network of labs processed just 30,717 test samples for the virus. That's the fewest number of tests since Nov. 17, 2020. Collectively, the labs logged a test positivity rate of 5.9 per cent. 

Tragically, 63 more people with the illness died.

Other public health units that saw double-digit increases in cases were:

  • Waterloo Region: 77
  • Windsor-Essex: 59
  • Hamilton: 59
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph: 55
  • Durham Region: 51
  • Niagara Region: 49
  • Halton Region: 49
  • Simcoe Muskoka: 36
  • Middlesex-London: 34
  • Ottawa: 32
  • Eastern Ontario: 18
  • Southwestern: 13
  • Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge: 12
  • Sudbury: 12

(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, because local units report figures at different times.)

The seven-day average of new daily cases continued its steady decline down to 2,346, from its peak at 3,555 on Jan. 11. 

Another 2,261 cases were logged as resolved in today's update. There are now 23,036 confirmed, active cases of COVID-19 in Ontario, down from a high of more than 30,000 earlier this month. 

There were 1,466 people with COVID-19 in hospitals, 68 more than the previous day. Of those, 383 were being treated in intensive care and 298 required a ventilator to breathe.

The 63 additional deaths pushed Ontario's official death toll to 5,909.

Forty-three of the deaths were residents in long-term care. As of yesterday, there were 246 long-term care homes, or about 39 per cent of the province's 626 facilities, with ongoing outbreaks of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the province said another 9,707 doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered on Monday, bringing the number of shots given out so far to 295,817. A total of 83,285 people have received both doses of a vaccine. 

The first shipment of vaccine is scheduled to arrive in one of 31 fly-in First Nations communities today as part of Ontario's Operation Remote Immunity.

ICU health-care worker Jannikka Navaratnam cares for a patient inside a negative pressure room at the Humber River Hospital in North York last month. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says that the ORNGE air ambulance service will be delivering and administering the Moderna vaccine to Weenusk First Nation.

Weenusk is a largely Cree community of approximately 500 people in the Hudson Bay region of northern Ontario.

Ford keeps calling for travel crackdown, but mum on paid sick days

Also Tuesday, the province announced that more than 6,800 international travellers have been tested for the virus through its pilot project at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. 

Ford has been calling on the federal government to implement mandatory testing of all incoming passengers — something he repeated at a Tuesday photo op at the airport —and a temporary ban on direct flights from countries where new variants are detected. He has also called for the federal government to consider banning flights with multiple stops in countries with a known variant. 

LISTEN | Retired Gen. Rick Hillier talks Ontario's vaccination rollout:

However, recent provincial data shows just 1.8 per cent of all traceable COVID-19 cases are related to international travel at this time.

On Monday, a group of Toronto and Hamilton-area mayors added their support to the call for more stringent travel measures, but also stepped up calls for greater provincial and federal action on paid sick leave, noting a significant number of workplace outbreaks among essential workers are contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

Ford has so far not committed to any further action on that front, saying earlier this month that he sees no need for the province to double up on the federally-instituted paid sick leave measure that provides $500 per week for those who need to take time off to self-isolate.

Critics, though, have pointed out that the federal initiative does not offer job protection and works out to less than minimum wage.

With files from The Canadian Press